Friday, August 22, 2014

Covering Syria: From Page to Screen

Cover design by J.T. Lindroos

When my colleague Howard Kaplan first published The Damascus Cover back in 1977, I imagine he gave some thought to his book’s movie potential. After all, he’d written a fast-paced spy novel full of intrigue, betrayals, and narrative twists galore, set amid Syria’s bloody byways. I doubt, though, it ever occurred to him that Hollywood would come calling in 2014.

Well, not Hollywood exactly. There’s British money involved in this modest indie production, now called simply Damascus Cover, which is slated to begin shooting in Morocco this fall, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Abigail Spencer, and Jurgen Prochnow in major roles. But writer-director Daniel Berk (who once helped connect John Travolta with Quentin Tarantino, and has also served as the Senior Envoy for Cultural Affairs at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles), shares Howard’s fascination with the Middle East. Berk enlisted a second screenwriter, Samantha Newton, to deepen the film’s central romantic relationship and otherwise up the dramatic stakes. Some of Howard’s own story suggestions were taken, but he’s the rare novelist who seems delighted by the changes that have been made to his original work. With both Syria and Israel all too prominent in the news of late, it seems high time to make a film that follows an Israeli spy who’s gone undercover in Damascus, masquerading as an ex-Nazi businessman while striving to carry out a dangerous mission.

A Nazi enclave in Syria decades after the close of World War II? That’s the kind of historic detail on which Howard Kaplan thrives. He’s a student of Middle Eastern history, one who spent several years living in Israel, speaks fluent Hebrew, and has contacts of all persuasions in the region about which he writes. During his student years, he made a brief, clandestine visit to Damascus, then enhanced his knowledge of this teeming, fascinating city by studying detailed maps as well as every memoir and travel book he could find. As he puts it, “God bless the Brits, who go everywhere and write about it.”

Howard’s enthusiasm for cloak-and-danger stories was primed in the early 1970s when he made two trips to the Soviet Union. On the first, he successfully smuggled out a dissident's manuscript on microfilm. The second time around,  he was arrested and interrogated for several days by Soviet police before being expelled from the country. (This incident contributed to the plot of his second published novel, The Chopin Express.) To flesh out The Damascus Cover, he read widely about the Israeli spy Eli Cohen who, explains Howard, “had been highly placed inside Syrian Intelligence before the Six Day War and provided Israel with much of the intelligence to allow them to take the Golan Heights from Syria in that war. He was uncovered and hung publicly in Marjeh Square in Damascus.” In addition, Howard steeped himself in the writings of  Somerset Maugham, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and especially John Le CarrĂ©, whose espionage novels benefit from his real-life experiences in British Foreign Intelligence. He’s also been inspired by Ken Follett, who early in his career wrote a vivid novel about Afghanistan without once having set foot in that troubled land.

Howard prides himself on his even-handedness, which comes from decades of researching both Israeli and Arab points of view. His objectivity on thorny Middle Eastern matters has been noted by many reviewers. He also knows how to spin a good yarn. Bestselling author Clive Cussler is a fan, saying, “Kaplan is up there with the best.” Let’s hope the movie version of The Damascus Cover lives up to expectations, and sheds light on what’s happening in the Syria of today. 

The movie poster, as of now 


  1. The book sounds like a tasty read! I wish them all the luck in the world getting the movie made - it's funny to me that filmmakers today are still taking a page out of the Arkoff & Nicholson handbook and designing movie posters before the movie is even made!

  2. I know what you're saying, Mr. C, but when ANY film is made independently it behooves its makers to spread the word as early as possible, in order to pick up distribution deals in various global territories. So a poster is definitely part of that.